Slow Burn

True Believers

Read a transcript of Slow Burn: Season 1, Episode 5.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 5.

In May 1973, Gail Sheehy was out on assignment for New York magazine to find some of Richard Nixon’s most unwavering defenders.

Sheehy: It was the first day of the Watergate hearings that I installed myself on a bar stool in Terry’s Bar in Astoria, Queens.

Sheehy went to Terry’s Bar every day for a week straight. The customers there were blue-collar Nixon voters. They were ironworkers, construction workers, elevator repairmen. Sheehy’s plan was to watch the Senate hearings alongside them and talk to them about why they loved Nixon. But when the bar owner put the hearings on TV and floated the idea with his regulars …

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Sheehy: “Hey guys, you want to watch that Watergate thing?”

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Their answer was unanimous: “TURN IT OFF!”

It wasn’t just that they weren’t interested. As far as the barflies at Terry’s were concerned, the Senate hearings were just a big show put on by liberals who wanted to take down the president. Why should anyone reward them by watching?

Over the course of her week in Queens, Sheehy got to know the president’s people.
She found them to be angry, demoralized, and disconcertingly comfortable with the idea of a police state run by Richard Nixon. Terry, the bar owner, told Sheehy that “You need some strong man on the top now to start whippin’ everything into shape. It might scare some people. It doesn’t scare me.”

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Behind the bar, Terry had hung up a novelty certificate that said “Nobody of the Year Award.”

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Sheehy: And that’s the way these guys felt—they were nobodies. Except that Richard Nixon gave them an identity. Richard Nixon was the tough guy who was going to get rid of all those antiwar people, all those anarchists, terrorists—the people who were tearing down our country.

Richard Nixon’s apologists thought liberals were obsessed with attacking the president.
Liberals, meanwhile, thought the Nixon apologists were willing to go to absurd lengths to ignore the truth about Watergate.

That summer, as the Senate hearings captivated the nation, the humorist Art Buchwald wrote a column in which he mapped out the rhetorical style of the Nixon apologist. He listed a series of “instant responses that loyal Nixonites could deploy when attacked at a party.” No. 1 on the list was, “Everyone does it.”

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Perlstein: And I used to hear that from my dad. My dad said, “Watergate, you know, everyone did that kind of stuff. Nixon just got caught.”

That’s historian Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge.

Perlstein: No. 2 was, “What about Chappaquiddick?”

Chappaquiddick was the place on Martha’s Vineyard where Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge—leading to the drowning of a young woman who was rumored to be his mistress. Nixon may have been a bad guy, the argument went, but Ted Kennedy was way, way worse.

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Perlstein: No. 8 was, “Wait until all the facts come out.” That was Ronald Reagan’s favorite.

No. 28 was, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about Watergate and so is everybody else.”

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No. 32 was, “What about Chappaquiddick?”

To a large extent, the public response to Watergate broke down, predictably, along party lines. A study from August 1973 found that Democrats were substantially more likely than Republicans to express grave concern over Watergate, while Republicans were more likely than Democrats to find the president “credible.”

But the divide between people who loved and hated Richard Nixon wasn’t always a partisan one. As Gail Sheehy found in her reporting for New York magazine, many of the patrons at Terry’s Bar were lifelong Democrats who had turned to Nixon as the world changed around them.

Sheehy: They, you know, saw this eruption in ’68: the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, promoting blacks, denigrating our war, and then the women’s movement. I mean, it was overwhelming—they couldn’t stand it. So they gravitated toward this man who appeared to speak for them, who was pro-war when he came in, who was a closet racist, who was very down on intellectuals and liberals.

Nixon’s supporters kept the faith for a very, very long time. That included members of the electorate who had voted for him in 1968, and 1972, and would’ve voted for him a third time if given the opportunity. It also included elected officials—politicians who had backed the president for years and didn’t see any reason to stop. One Republican congressman from Tennessee urged his fellow lawmakers to resist joining the “legislative lynch mob.” To underscore the point, he held up a rope tied into a hangman’s noose.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee at that time was George H. W. Bush. Here’s Bush speaking to a gathering of Southern Republicans in Atlanta in December 1973.

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Bush: The people are going to tell their members of Congress. The people are going to tell their members of the United States Senate. Let the man do the job he was elected to do!

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Remember, by this point, John Dean had testified about Nixon’s participation in the cover-up, and James McCord had testified about the grubby particulars of bugging phones of behalf of Nixon’s reelection campaign. The former attorney general had testified about the deranged acts of political sabotage that had been discussed inside the Department of Justice. And still, Nixon’s people held on.

Why did so many Americans continue to stand by Richard Nixon even as it became clear that he was a criminal who had abused his power? How did Nixon’s admirers, allies, and foot soldiers defend him, even as more and more evidence of indefensible behavior piled up?

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And how did these loyalists react when they learned there were tape recordings of the president’s private conversations—recordings that could settle, once and for all, the question of who was lying about Watergate and who was telling the truth?

This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.

Unidentified Person: I don’t think a man in his position would resort to something like that. That was foolhardy anyway.

Jesse Helms: The FBI said that Franklin Roosevelt did it a lot. Truman did it.

Unidentified Person: If the election were held again today, the result would not be measurably different.

Episode 5: True Believers

At the end of our previous episode, I talked about the moment when Senate investigators discovered there was a secret taping system in the White House.

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The story that I’m about to tell you, about how the investigators uncovered the taping system, is a really good one. It’s also the best example I’ve found of the tribalism that lived under the surface of the Senate Watergate Committee. In many ways, the committee was just as divided as the rest of the country.

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Scott Armstrong was an investigator with the Senate committee staff. He worked for the Democratic side, and he wanted to see Nixon go down. He was also convinced that his counterparts on the Republican side were willing to support the president no matter what.

Armstrong: There’s a wheeling and dealing at the senatorial level that was difficult for me as a whippersnapper coming out of Boston and thinking in terms of getting to the truth. There was a political element to this that I just didn’t understand.

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The story Armstrong tells to illustrate the schism within the Senate committee staff takes place in July of 1973, when he was 27 years old.

Armstrong: It was very close to midnight, working very late. We worked in cubicles in open offices—Democrats and Republicans together—in a converted auditorium.

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It was two months into the Senate hearings, and Armstrong had gotten used to working late. On this particular night, he remembers a stenographer coming up to his desk.

She told him that she had just processed a document that he would want to see. I can’t in good conscience just give it to you, she said, but I’m gonna do what I was told and leave it on the desk in Mr. So-and-So’s office, and then you can do what you want with it.

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Armstrong: His office was six by six. If I stand at the doorway and you look at his desk and she lays it out laterally on the desk, it was maybe eight pages, maybe it was a little longer. I could just stand there and read it. In those days my eyes were good enough. So I went over and I read it, and it was a remarkable document.

The document Scott Armstrong was reading appeared to contain notes from a secret conversation between a high-ranking Republican member of the Watergate committee staff and one of Nixon’s closest advisers. The subject of the conversation was John Dean, the former White House counsel who had just recently turned on the president. The document included suggested questions that Republicans could ask Dean in order to undermine him.

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At the time of the conversation memorialized in Armstrong’s newly discovered document, the Watergate committee was preparing to interrogate Dean in public hearings. To Armstrong, this document looked like a crib sheet that had been slipped to the Republican side of the Senate committee by the Nixon White House.

That was important. The Republican side of the committee, led by Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, claimed to be working in good faith to get to the bottom of Watergate. Ostensibly, the hearings were a bipartisan undertaking—an apolitical fact-finding mission in which one branch of government investigated another. But backstage, the Democrats and the Republicans on the committee staff operated as two separate teams. And those two teams were not exactly overflowing with mutual trust and admiration.

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As far as Armstrong was concerned, this memo proved that the Republicans had maintained a backchannel with the White House. That’s why the stenographer thought Armstrong would want to see the memo, and she was right.

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But Armstrong noticed something else about the memo—something that didn’t make any sense to him.

Armstrong: In the middle of this memo, after each question that they suggested be asked, there was a little Nixon-Dean exchange in quote marks—verbatim—and it was just, it struck me as very odd.

Where had these quotations come from? Had someone taken really meticulous notes on Dean’s meetings with Nixon? Or did one of Nixon’s cronies just have a really good memory? Or was there some other explanation?

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The memo that Scott Armstrong read in July of 1973 had been dictated by Fred Thompson.

You may remember Thompson from when he ran for president in 2008, or from when he was an actor with a starring role on Law and Order. Back in 1973, he was a 30-year-old lawyer who was serving as the highest-ranking Republican member of the Senate Watergate Committee staff. His title was minority counsel.

Just as Scott Armstrong was suspicious of Thompson and the Republicans, Thompson didn’t particularly trust the Democrats. Thompson, who died in 2015, wrote in his memoir that he was “constantly concerned that information was being withheld from the Republican side, either deliberately or because of inept coordination.”

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This suspicion was likely a big part of why Thompson tried to send a representative of the Republican staff to every closed-door interview conducted by the Democrats on the Senate committee.

That’s why on Friday, July 13, 1973, Scott Armstrong was accompanied by a Republican staffer when he went to interview a Nixon White House aide named Alexander Butterfield.

At some point during the interview, Armstrong took out a copy of that memo—the one he’d read through the doorway—and he asked Butterfield about the verbatim quotes. Initially, Butterfield kind of hemmed and hawed.

Armstrong: He said, “The president doesn’t have that good a memory.” This is very odd. This is quite unique. I said, “Well, where did it come from?” And he was a little bit flustered but fairly cool. And he folded it up, and he said, “Let me think about that for a minute.”

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And so the conversation moved on.

Later, Armstrong’s Republican counterpart, a lawyer named Don Sanders who served as Fred Thompson’s deputy, took over the questioning. Sanders, who died in 1999, brought up a comment that John Dean had made earlier in the summer: Dean had said that, on one of his visits to the White House, he had seen Richard Nixon wander into the corner of his office and say something under his breath. Dean told investigators that in that moment, he wondered whether Nixon might be recording himself.

Don Sanders asked Alexander Butterfield: Was it possible that Dean knew what he was talking about?

Armstrong: Butterfield stops and says, “No, absolutely not. No way Dean would have known.”

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What exactly did Dean not know about?

Butterfield pointed to the memo with the mysterious quotations, and then he came out with it:

Armstrong: And he said, “I guess you guys must already know: The president has an automatic taping device in each of his offices.”

Armstrong and Sanders did not already know. No one knew except for a few Secret Service agents and a very tight circle of the president’s most intimate confidants.

Alexander Butterfield was in that tight circle. He knew about the White House taping system because he had been asked to oversee its installation.

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And suddenly it all made sense: Those conversations between John Dean and Richard Nixon that had been quoted in that memo—those had all been picked up by microphones. In fact, the president had recorded every word that anyone had said to him in the Oval Office since February 1971.

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It wouldn’t be crazy to think of Scott Armstrong’s story as a sterling example of what can be achieved through bipartisan cooperation. Armstrong loosened the lid of the jar, and Don Sanders opened it the rest of the way—a Democrat and a Republican working together to expose the most consequential secret of Nixon’s presidency. But Armstrong does not exactly see it that way.

Armstrong: The backchannel communications—the hubris of being able to manipulate the Watergate committee—is what did them in.

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For him, this is a story about the White House trying to interfere with the committee’s work by helping Republicans behind the scenes—and then having it blow up in their faces.

Armstrong: I always saw this as the biggest blunder and the blunder that brought Nixon down. There would have been no taping system as evidence—I don’t think we would have discovered it. We might have discovered it, but I think the proof of the pudding is the guy who most likely would have told us about it, Alexander Butterfield, didn’t tell us about until he saw that memo.

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So, that’s how Scott Armstrong tells it.

Mike Madigan: Is that his story? Is that Scotty’s story? [Laughter] Yeah, right …

That’s Mike Madigan. He was an assistant counsel on the Republican side of the committee. He worked directly under Fred Thompson and considered him a close friend. As Madigan sees it, Armstrong is trying to take credit for cracking Watergate wide open—credit that he does not deserve. The person who does deserve it, Madigan says, is Armstrong’s colleague, the Republican staffer Don Sanders. According to Madigan, it was Sanders who coaxed Butterfield into speaking up about the taping system, not anything Armstrong did with his little memo.

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Madigan: Scotty, I believe, contends that somehow he’s the one that really discovered blah, blah, blah. … It’s laughable to think that what Scotty says is true because our guy is the one that discovered the tapes.

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Madigan isn’t just being a stickler for detail here. He’s objecting to the larger allegation that’s implicit in Armstrong’s version of events—that Republicans on the committee were putting party over country, that they cared more about shielding the president from accountability than they did about shielding the nation from a corrupt president.

Madigan thinks Armstrong’s outlook amounts to a reprehensible attack on the character of honorable attorneys like Fred Thompson:

Madigan: We wanted to make sure that the evidence was there. Armstrong goes around saying that the White House was really running things, Fred was just a puppet—that is complete, absolute horseshit.

Armstrong, for what it’s worth, says it’s not horseshit, and that anyone pretending the Senate Watergate Committee was actually a bipartisan endeavor is perpetuating a myth.

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The presumption of bad faith between Republicans and Democrats on the Watergate Committee staff mirrored what was going on in the country at large.

Jesse Helms: No American citizen in his right mind believes in burglary or improper bugging, but this had been going on through many administrations.

That’s North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who was speaking on a radio show hosted by a popular right-wing pundit named Clarence Manion. This clip is from September 1973.

Helms: I noticed in the press the other day, the FBI said that Franklin Roosevelt did it a lot. Truman did it, and Eisenhower did it, and Kennedy, and Johnson. But it was all right—they didn’t consider it a very horrendous thing. But this was something they could appall the American people with, so they’ve made a great circus out of it.

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Other politicians, like Ronald Reagan, went further: They insisted that nothing all that bad had even taken place.

Reagan: There are some who would destroy a man in order to destroy a mandate of all the people. For America’s sake, let’s get on with the business of government.

Reagan, who was the governor of California at the time, described the Watergate break-in as the work of “well-meaning individuals committed to the reelection of the president.”

Reporter: Reagan, who talks a lot about law and order, said the burglars should not be considered as criminals because they are not criminals at heart.

So there were a lot of different ways to defend Nixon: An establishment conservative might do it one way in the pages of National Review, while a construction worker might do it a different way at Terry’s Bar. But one thing all Nixon apologists agreed on was that the liberal media was out to get their man. Here’s Gail Sheehy again:

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Sheehy: They talked about, you know, Richard Nixon was the last of the tough guys, and they’re trying to crucify him. “And who’s ‘they?’ ” I would say. “You know, the liberals and the intellectuals—the liberal press, the Washington Post, the New York Times. And then he’d say, “You know, the liberals can’t understand why we don’t see any harm in what Richard Nixon is doing. And you know what the answer is? Why don’t care!”

The media was the flashpoint for the partisan bickering inside the Senate Watergate Committee, too. Specifically, everyone was angry about leaks: The Republicans thought the Democrats were leaking things to hurt the president, and the Democrats thought the Republicans were leaking things to help him.

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That beef between the Democratic investigator Scott Armstrong and the Republican counsel Mike Madigan? A lot of it had to do with leaking to the press.

Madigan: He leaked to anybody that he could conceivably leak to.

That’s Madigan talking about Armstrong. And I have to say, he has a point. Armstrong was one of the sources for a November 1973 Rolling Stone story that portrayed the committee staff as dysfunctional and weighed down by mutual suspicion. The piece said that “[t]he most incorrigible partisans” on the committee were Republicans Fred Thompson and Howard Baker. When the committee leadership found out that Scott Armstrong was an anonymous source for the piece, they suspended him for a month.

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When I asked Armstrong where his distrust for Thompson and Baker came from originally, he went back to John Dean.

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See, when Dean had decided to start talking to investigators, he had a condition.

Armstrong: Basically, Dean was going to cooperate on the basis that he would talk only to the Democrats until he completely told his story, and then he would go public. He wasn’t going to subject himself to being interrogated by the Republicans. The reason Dean gave was that both Baker and Thompson were in the bag, they were working for the White House. Constantly telling the White House what the committee was doing, what its plans were.

Dean knew that the president saw Howard Baker as a guy who was on his side. In February 1973, when the Senate committee was first formed, Baker had come to the White House for a secret conversation with Nixon. Dean had been in that meeting. And he later wrote that Baker told the president, “Nobody knows I’m here,” and stressed to him that the Senate investigation would not be a “fishing expedition.”

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But if Baker was working behind the scenes to help the president, he did not show it while the cameras were on. Here’s his opening statement at the Senate hearings, on May 17, 1973.

Baker: The greatest service that this committee can perform for the Senate, for the Congress, and for the people of this nation is to achieve a full discovery of all of the facts that bear on the subject of this inquiry.

There was one senator on the Republican side who did not mind looking like a suck-up to the president. That was Edward Gurney from Florida. In his opening statement, he made clear that he would be playing the part of pro-Nixon concern troll:

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Gurney: What will Watergate do, and what will these hearings do, to the office and institution of the presidency? That is the question that is uppermost in people’s minds and gnawing away in the pits of their stomachs. Thus, the rocking of the boat by Watergate, its catastrophic effect upon the institution of the presidency, is indeed the object of serious concern of everyone at home and abroad.

Nixon’s supporters may have sounded defensive, and their arguments may have seemed strained. But for the most part, they weren’t all that worried about the outcome of the Watergate hearings.

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Here’s Nicole Hemmer, a historian at the University of Virginia, who wrote about Nixon apologists in her book about the early stirrings of conservative media:

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Hemmer: I mean, they really did think that he was going to survive. And I think that a lot of Americans thought he was going to survive Watergate. There wasn’t a sense—at least not early on—that this was going to be a kind of presidency-ending event. And because it had never happened, it kind of seemed impossible that a president was going to be brought down by this kind of investigation and this kind of scandal.

If you start the clock with the burglary in June of 1972, that was the state of play for more than a year.

Then, on July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield sat down in the witness chair and revealed to the world what he had revealed to the committee investigators three days earlier: The president had bugged himself.

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Alexander Butterfield was not trying to be a whistleblower.

He didn’t have anything to do with the Watergate break-in. He just happened to oversee the Secret Service team that installed the taping system in the White House—including five hidden microphones inside Nixon’s Oval Office desk.

So why did Nixon want to record all his conversations anyway? Historians argue about this—one theory is that he wanted the material for his memoirs. Another possibility, and I like this one even though there’s not a lot of evidence for it, is that he knew the tapes would be worth a ton of money and that he could get a big tax write-off if he donated them to his presidential library.

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Before Butterfield told Scott Armstrong and Don Sanders about the taping system, only a handful of people in the world knew about it. That number grew exponentially as soon as Fred Thompson asked Butterfield this question during the Senate hearings:

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Thompson: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

Butterfield: [Long pause] … I was aware of listening devices, yes sir.

Did you hear that silence? That was so many seconds! Also, you can hear in his voice that he’s planning to say, “but.” But then he can’t think of a “but.”

Now, it’s worth noting that it was Fred Thompson, not his Democratic counterpart or one of the Democratic senators, who teed up Butterfield to reveal the taping system. This reflects the fact that, officially, it was Don Sanders, not Scott Armstrong, who got credit for discovering it.

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The response to Butterfield’s testimony was instantaneous.

Unidentified Person 1: The one clear point is that the tapes are material evidence bearing directly upon whether there were criminal conspiracies.

Unidentified Person 2: I think it’s an invasion of the right of privacy.

Reporter: Those tapes, when checked against accusations made against the president, could show who’s telling the truth about the Watergate cover-up. …

The headline in the next day’s Washington Post was “NIXON TAPE RECORDINGS SEEN AS ULTIMATE WATERGATE WITNESS.”

The best description I’ve read of this moment comes from Mary McCarthy. She wrote in a newspaper column that “[t]he moral shock of learning that Nixon had been bugging … anybody who approached his offices … lost some of its impact in the general joyful feeling that the case was going to be resolved.”

So, imagine you’re a Nixon supporter, and you’ve been clinging to the belief that the president didn’t do anything wrong. You’ve been watching these hearings, and you’re absolutely certain that John Dean is a liar. You’ve told yourself that Nixon would have been way too busy running the country to get involved in some Keystone Cops break-in or some idiotic cover-up.

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And now you find out about these tapes. If you genuinely believe that Nixon didn’t do anything wrong and that Dean was making the whole thing up, you should be thrilled. Here’s the proof, right? Now Nixon can just release the recordings and put everything to rest.

But, once again, Nixon made it very hard on his defenders. The president did not want to release the tapes.

Reporter: In a letter to Sen. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate committee, the president said that the tapes fall into the category of presidential papers, which, as he has said before, the president won’t turn over to another branch of government.

The day after Butterfield’s testimony, Sen. Sam Ervin sent the White House a letter requesting the tapes. Nixon responded six days later, saying that he had listened to the recordings and could confirm that they were entirely consistent with what he knew to be the truth. “However,” the president wrote, “as in any verbatim recording of informal conversations, they contain comments that persons with different perspectives and motivations would inevitably interpret in different ways.”

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After this rejection, Ervin and the rest of the senators on the committee felt they had no choice but to issue a subpoena. It was an extraordinary move, one that made the tapes a matter for the courts.

Reporter: President Nixon today defied subpoenas demanding that he produce tapes and papers in his possession, and the country moved closer to a clash between the White House and the Congress and the courts, which would be unprecedented in American history.

As summer turned to fall, no one in America knew whether the tapes would ever come out, and many couldn’t help but suspect that the president would find a way to keep them hidden.

“Perhaps we shall be told that some have been damaged by atmospheric conditions,” wrote Mary McCarthy. “Most people say that is too crude—[that] Nixon would not dare.
But he has dared a great deal, before now … At this moment, Nixon may have only boldness on his side.”

It was during this queasy will-he-or-won’t-he period that some of Nixon’s loyalists began to waver. On Aug. 15, 1973, a month after Butterfield’s testimony, the president gave a televised address in which he tried to explain why it was so important to him that the tapes not be turned over. This wasn’t about protecting him personally, he said—it was about protecting the presidency.

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Nixon: That is why I shall continue to oppose efforts which would set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations between them and those they look to for advice.

Nixon insisted that he was completely, totally innocent.

Nixon: I was convinced there was no cover-up, because I was convinced that no one had anything to cover up.

And he called on the country to just move on already.

Nixon: After 12 weeks and 2 million words of televised testimony, we have reached a point at which a continued backward-looking obsession with Watergate is causing this nation to neglect matters of far greater importance to all of the American people. We must not stay so mired in Watergate …

The speech bombed.

Reporter: A Harris poll released today shows that President Nixon’s Watergate speech did not win Mr. Nixon the support he asked for.

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Seventy-seven percent of adult Americans watched the speech. And only about a quarter of them found Nixon’s words “quite or somewhat convincing.”

It wasn’t just voters who reacted badly to the speech either: Some members of the Republican establishment were starting to get nervous as well.

Sen. Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the conservative movement, was one of the first major Republican figures to speak out against Nixon on the subject of Watergate. After Nixon’s Aug. 15 speech, Goldwater said, “the president must release these tapes … and tell the truth.” William F. Buckley’s National Review also called on Nixon to release at least some portion of the tapes, saying in an editorial that Watergate had “drained his political sinew, his moral authority, and his credibility.”

What made Nixon’s defenders, who stuck by him for so long, finally say, “enough”?

It seems to me that Nixon’s refusal to turn over the tapes was the start of it—the first crack. Even Ed Gurney, Nixon’s toady on the Senate committee, told a reporter that if the president refused to provide access to the tapes, it would hurt him politically.

For people who had believed in the president’s innocence, his decision to fight the release of the tapes in court could not have been easy to justify.

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As the weeks and months wore on, Republican elected officials—and ordinary voters—had to ask themselves how far out on a limb they were willing to go to support Richard Nixon.

It wasn’t just Republicans who went on a journey from believing in Nixon to being done with him. Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat, began the Senate hearings thinking that it was inconceivable that President Nixon could have been involved in Watergate. After presiding over 237 hours of public testimony, Ervin understood that he had been horribly naïve.

There’s one moment from Ervin’s journey that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
It shows that, even after John Dean’s testimony, the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee still had some faith in President Nixon’s commitment to the rule of law.

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That moment came on July 19, 1973, a few days after the taping system was revealed.
Ervin had requested the tapes from the White House, and Nixon hadn’t yet responded.
A little before lunch, an aide told Sen. Ervin that he had an important phone call. It was Nixon’s treasury secretary, and when Ervin got on the line, he was informed that Nixon had agreed to voluntarily give up the tapes.

Ervin took the call in a glass phonebooth, right in the hearing room, and people could hear him exclaiming into the receiver, “Oh that’s fine, that’s wonderful. Tell the president he’s performed a great public service and that he’s cut the committee’s work in half.”

After lunch, Ervin told the world what he had learned.

Ervin: I am pleased to announce that the president has decided to make available to the committee tapes of conversations and which are relevant to the matters which the committee is authorized to investigate.

He was so, so happy, so relieved. Mary McCarthy described Ervin’s “old cracked voice quaver[ing] with joy as he spoke.”

But the air went out of this particular balloon pretty quickly: The phone call had been a hoax. As Ervin confirmed when he spoke to the real treasury secretary, the person who had called him was nothing but a prankster.

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Reporter: It took less than half an hour for Ervin to learn that he had been tricked, that the White House not given in, and that victory was not in his grasp.

Ervin was embarrassed and devastated.

Ervin: So it’s just an awful thing for a very trusting soul like me to find that there are human beings who would perpetrate a hoax like this.

It was four days later that Nixon put it in writing: No, he would not release the White House tapes. And as the months rolled by, and Nixon’s grip on the tapes tightened, they became this tantalizing but also panic-inducing symbol of everything that was as yet unknown about Watergate. Surely these recordings contained the answers. But what if Nixon found a way to doctor them, or what if he just destroyed them? John Dean had already accused Nixon of being willing to pay a million dollars in cash to keep the Watergate burglars silent. Would setting fire to the tapes really be that much crazier or bolder?

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The fact that it seemed possible that Nixon would destroy the evidence against him tells you how far the country had traveled by the fall of 1973. The range of what was fathomable had expanded, and it would keep on expanding as the new year, 1974, approached.

But with the onset of that cynicism came a righteous anger. As Richard Nixon grew more shameless and autocratic during his final year in office, Americans of all political persuasions began to push back. Soon, Nixon would discover that even his staunchest loyalists were abandoning him.

By the end of October 1973, even the owner of Terry’s Bar, though still in favor of a Nixon police state, had to concede that the tide was turning. For a follow-up story, he told Gail Sheehy, “The ballgame’s over. We’re on our way out. We didn’t even last as long as the Roman Empire.”

This podcast is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. Slate Plus members get a complete bonus episode of Slow Burn every week, going deeper into the wild world of Watergate. I’m sharing some of the amazing stuff I’ve found in researching the series and playing extended versions of my interviews with people who watched it all go down.

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This week, I’ve got an interview with Paul Magallanes, an ex-FBI agent who worked on the Watergate case early on. He and I talked about how the FBI tends to get left out of the Watergate story, and what that’s been like for him and his former colleagues.

Slate Plus members help support this show and the rest of our work. You can find out more, and sign up for Slate Plus, at slate.com/watergate.

Slow Burn is produced by me and Andrew Parsons. Our script editor is Josh Levin. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Plus. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Teddy Blanks from Chips. Thanks to NBC Archives and the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum for the audio you heard in this episode.

Thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, June Thomas, and Steve Lickteig. You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.

On next week’s episode of Slow Burn, I’ll be diving into a bit of a rabbit hole: the boom in conspiracy theory that followed Watergate, and what the conspiracy theories that came out of it tell us about Nixon’s downfall.

Mae Brussell: Somebody in the Watergate murdered J. Edgar Hoover, and if they had the proper witnesses and the right questions, we’d begin to exhume some of these bodies and find out what’s really happening in this nation.

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